Mesa’s Asian District weathering pandemic The Mesa Tribune | The Hometown Newspaper for the city of Mesa, AZ

Mesa’s Asian District weathering pandemic

January 16th, 2021 Mesa Tribune Staff
Mesa’s Asian District weathering pandemic

By Kenzel Williams
Tribune Contributor

Mesa’s Asian District continues emerging as a hub for the Valley’s fast-growing Asian-American community despite the challenges posed by COVID-19.

The district – home to more than
70 Asian-owned businesses including grocery stores, restaurants and other retail services – has been hit hard due to the pandemic, but there are signs of recovery.

People can still plan a whole day out in the district.

Dine in at Unphogettable or Spicy Pot after going grocery shopping at H Mart or Asiana Market. Grab some tea at Cha Tea or Boba Tree before shopping at Hong Kong Gifts or TokTok Beauty. There are even a few karaoke bars to finish off the night.

While most businesses are remaining open, the pandemic has affected all of them. Yet, the sense of community remains strong.

Niquole Figueroa, who works at Wholly Grill, a Filipino cuisine restaurant, said everyone knows each other there.

“These Filipino old ladies come up to you and just start talking to you,” said Figueroa. “It feels like I’m just talking to a family friend, which is both terrifying and kind of funny at the same time.”

Figueroa saw the plaza’s struggle when the pandemic first hit Arizona. Many people avoided going to businesses, including Mekong Plaza on Dobson Road near Main Street.

“I was told I can’t come in because there’s no customers especially because Mekong is an Asian supermarket and COVID was associated with Asia,” said Figueroa. “So, it was barren for the longest time.”

Mekong Plaza is one of the district’s most recognizable areas.

Opened in 2008, the 100,000-square-foot facility lured many small business owners.

Jaye O’Donnell, the city’s assistant economic development director, said Mekong Plaza played a critical role in the district’s growth.

“I think it has really been a strong anchor for other Asian-related businesses to come and open up because the natural flow of retail development is to cluster,” said O’Donnell.

“You can see over the last 10-12 years, there has been a great number of Asian-owned or Asian-related businesses that have clustered in that area,” she added. “I think that catalyst was Mekong.”

Mekong Plaza provides many Asian-themed services, but it also creates a sense of belonging for the community.

More Asian-Americans have dubbed the Asian District as the go-to space for their community, especially after the closure of the Phoenix Chinese Cultural Center in late 2019.

The district’s influence on the Asian-American community goes along with Mesa’s recent initiative to promote diversity and inclusion within the city.

According to a 2014 report by the city Human Relations Advisory Board, about 79 percent of respondents said that the city should be responsible for promoting awareness of diversity, inclusion and tolerance. 

The same report stated that more than 55,000 Mesa residents were born outside of the United States and that 13 percent of those came from Asia. 

The U.S. Census estimated in 2019 that nearly 3 percent of Mesa residents identify as Asian.

Andrea Alicoate, the city diversity administrator, said Mesa is always looking for ways to support its various communities.

“Diversity and inclusion initiatives have been part of the city of Mesa for well over a decade when the Diversity Office and Human Relations Advisory Board were developed as part of the City’s structure,” said Alicoate.

“In more recent years, we’ve strengthened that commitment by incorporating diversity and inclusion into our core values and equity as a priority in how we deliver programs and services,” he added.

Alicoate said that the city has helped develop the Asian District as part of Mesa’s commitment to inclusion.

“The city has also historically been very supportive of these communities through the attendance and promotion of cultural events such as the Lunar New Year and Mid-Autumn Festival,” said Alicoate.

The city used some of its federal pandemic relief money to help small businesses cover bills and build better marketing strategies.

“The small business community is really important to this economy and they’re the backbone of any economy,” said O’Donnell. “It’s so critical that they not only stay alive and stay open, but they learn to thrive and they learn better practices for operation.”

O’Donnell says when the city was discussing branding efforts for the Asian District, Asian Americans in the district “just had really moving stories about why they felt comfortable there, why they chose to open up a business there and how special it is to have families, couples and students coming to this vibrant district and feeling like they belong.”

Today, most of the businesses in the district are doing better than when the pandemic started.

Most small shops have limited the number of people who can come inside the store at one time. Sanitizing high-touch surfaces has become a priority and restaurants are placing an emphasis on carry-out options over dining in.

Overall, the Asian District is growing again, the Korean grocery chain H Mart last summer and last month, Two Hands Corn Dog opened up in the same plaza.

Alicoate said the city is still looking for new and innovative ways to work toward their goals of diversity and inclusion.

“Although the way we celebrate cultural and diverse events has changed due to the pandemic in order to keep our community healthy and safe,” said Alicoate, “we still will be finding innovative and fun new ways to honor, support and celebrate significant moments in 2021.”

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